History and Research
Finding sparks of historical inspiration in the modern world is a historical romance writer’s most treasured thrill. It’s easier than it may appear at first. Even though I can’t catch a plane and jettison myself to London for inspiration, there is plenty right here in New York City to tickle my imagination.
Recently, my husband and I celebrated our 8th wedding anniversary by having lunch at Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan. Though the original building was constructed in 1671, it didn’t begin it’s climb to historical infamy until 1762, when it was purchased by Samuel Fraunces. Fraunces converted the building into a tavern, calling his establishment the Queen’s head after Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III.
Despite it’s namesake, it quickly became home to “radical” politics, when the Sons of Liberty choose it as their meeting place. By the end of the revolution, the tavern was commonly referred to as Fraunces Tavern. On December 4, 1784 the Tavern hosted it’s most famous event: a victorious farewell banquet given in honor of General Washington by his Officers. He toasted his officers amid tears saying (as recorded by Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge) “I most devotedly wish that your latter days be as prosperous and happy as your former days have been glorious and honorable.” At the close of the banquet, one by one, each officer took Washington’s hand to bid him farewell.
The building still houses a dining establishment on the first floor, however the Sons of the American Revolution has preserved the upstairs private dining rooms as a museum. There by husband and I looked over clothing, papers and paintings that date back to Georgian times. I found inspiration everywhere: in the blown-glass windows, the painted wall paper, the pewter candlesticks and the hastily written notes preserved through the centuries. When standing in front of a tavern’s fireplace, for instance (and next to the china cupboard), one can easily imagine the comings and goings of young colonists as they argued the merits of revolution.
My stories are set in England, but in the tavern I could easily imagine a similar public house in London full of raucous conversation and seeds of social discontent. A tavern on a dark alley where Ladies were banned, but which had several private upstairs dining areas where a desperate lady might hold an illicit assignation…
When I first read about Lady Worsley’s Whim I immediately felt “the tingle.” You know—the nebulous sort of charge that whispers, “this book is gonna be important.” I suppose then, you could say I was predisposed to love it. I built up enough anticipation to justify ordering from amazon UK before the US edition came out.
Love it, however, I did.
The book covers one of the most sensational scandals of the late 18th century: the elopement of Lady Worsley with her husband’s good friend, the subsequent Criminal Conversation trial and its life-long effects on everyone involved.
Some background information: A Criminal Conversation trial was like a civil suit where an aggrieved husband could request financial compensation from his wife’s seducer. By the way, a wife could not sue her husband for Criminal Conversation because in 18th century logic, the crime was not necessarily thought to be in the cheating, but in the possible, well, let’s call it property damage. By having an adultrous affair, a wife called into question the parentage of the husband’s heirs and thus put in jeopardy the proper transference of title and property.
What is fascinating about this trial is that Lady Worsley worked with her lover to call into question her husband’s virility and honor. She wrote to former lovers and asked them to testify on her lover’s behalf, telling the world that not only was her husband a neglectful lover, but that he encouraged her to, a-hem, find her own bliss elsewhere. She sullied her own reputation beyond repair, but she succeeded in permanently damaging her husband’s standing in society. Throughout the story both parties are cold, calculating and absolutely certain that they are in the right as they set out to exact revenge on one another for insults real and perceived.
And that, folks, makes for some serious drama.
Ms. Rubenhold uses the drama to full advantage, writing it in heart-stopping style. Take this quote, describing the early morning elopement:
“At 5 a.m., while most of Lewes slept, a carriage shot up the High Street and onto the London Road. As they departed at breakneck speed for the capital, their chaise passed directly in front of Sir Richard’s darkened bedroom window, leaving a jangle of noise in its wake.”
As you can see, history comes alive with vivid detail under Ms. Rubenhold careful hand.
I highly recommend this book. I drew on her research (and supplemented it with my own) for my finished manuscript, Lady Vicious. I’m certain it will inspire other writers out there as well.
FCC disclosure: I’m just a writer looking for a good resource. I’m not sponsored, paid, connected to or compensated by the writer or publisher of this book. I just like it, damn it.